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Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Elliott and Hanning, Peter Clarke and Lord Howard of Rising.

False prophet: Enoch Powell in 1978 (Photograph: Getty Images)

Cameron: Practically a Conservative by Francis Elliott and James Hanning

With the apparent failure of a centre-right realignment and the growing strength of the Labour Party, questions are multiplying over David Cameron’s inability to create a new story for British politics. Jason Cowley, writing in the New Statesman this week, appraises the timely arrival of an updated version of Francis Elliott’s and James Hanning’s biography of David Cameron, first published in 2007 – a book that "will surely become the standard Cameron biography". It is a narrative of power where "again and again, Cameron’s charm is noticed and remarked upon". The old Etonian’s charm is such that Cameron’s rise is recounted by Elliott and Hanning "with hushed, excited reverence, which at times pushes the book closer towards hagiography".  The authors’ failure is most apparent in their attempt to convey something of Cameron’s inner life. In this regard, Elliott and Hanning may not be entirely at fault. Cowley observes that not only has Cameron never published anything of note, and that "gives an impression of knowing as much as he wants to know". In an age of profound political instability, Cameron remains dangerously "caught, even trapped, within a class and tradition". Such constraints, Cowley concludes, mean that the Cameron story "may not have the happy ending for which he and his party would have wished".

John Dugdale, writing in the Guardian, also notes how the update brings forward a very different story. The contrast is stark: "Before, he appeared poised to be embraced by the electorate, having escaped [his] gilded background; now he seems still detrimentally shaped by it, his failings as PM often attributable to an establishment mindset and image shared by his inner circle". The authors, "notably sharp on Cameron’s botched election campaign, uncertain EU policy and disastrous wooing of Rupert Murdoch’s executives", spare little criticism. It is the analysis of these fresh crises, writes Boyd Tonkin in the Independent, that shows how "'Flashman', the easily-rattled top dog, can lack drive and focus".

Enoch at 100: a Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell edited by Lord Howard of Rising

The qualities of Enoch Powell are re-evaluated in this commemorative collection of his speeches and essays by contemporary commentators. As a body of material, it offers an exploration of the rhetorical leitmotifs of the far right. These motifs are apparent in the "Rivers of Blood" speech of April 1968, which described a situation of such excessive immigration that could, Powell claimed, only be solved by non-white repatriation. The speech "made Powell a hero, particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts," writes Vernon Bogdanor in the New Statesman; "it was, in truth, unforgivable". Bogdanor examines how the rhetoric of persecution in turn gave birth to the right-wing trope of the liberal conspiracy to close down discussion of immigration. If so, the continuous political manipulation of immigration by the Conservatives can only mean that "the liberal conspiracy has not been very successful". For Bogdanor, Powell was "one of the 20th century’s false prophets", his "predictions of ethnic conflict – indeed, of civil war – have proved spectacularly wrong".

Charles Moore, writing in the Telegraph, finds that the prophet still has something to say. Despite the inflammatory oratory, Powell’s "commitment to the British nation state, and above all to the Parliament which embodied it, made him pay relentless attention to the visceral issues which lay behind the questions of the day". The book also sets out "his groundbreaking ideas about what causes inflation, his bold approach to energy policy". Moore sees the juxtaposition of both essays and speeches as offering a valuable insight into Powell’s powers of argument and expression: "He could think boldly about a huge range of subjects, and then argue about them with intellectual force and high emotion". Burning through the collection is Powell’s "strangely compelling tone of voice – the odd combination of eccentric professor and mass orator, of almost archaic obscurity and devastating clarity". This judgement is echoed by Adrian Hilton for the Daily Mail: "It becomes apparent to those who do not already know that Enoch Powell was, like Lear, a man more sinned against than sinning."

Mr Churchill's Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer by Peter Clarke

Peter Clarke’s book, an examination of the relationship between Winston Churchill’s literary output and his political career, enters a field of study where newcomers "need either to bring with them a reputation already made or else to happen upon a theme that has so far escaped notice," writes Douglas Hurd in the New Statesman. For Hurd, Clarke’s sharp research happily fulfils both criteria. In Clarke’s exploration of Churchill’s inheritance from his parents, the intersections between the political and the literary come readily enough. Churchill’s 1906 biography of his father, written while MP for Oldham, "was an openly partisan attempt to rebuild his father’s reputation as a Tory democrat". The narrative is familiar, but Clarke maintains a focus "on the relationship of Churchill with the publishers who moved from excitement to despair and back again as they watched, almost helplessly, the ups and downs of the author’s love affair with history – more particularly with his own page in that story". Churchill’s last work, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, written during the 1930s and eventually published in the 1950s, provoked an argument between the author and his publishers, inevitably fuelled by Churchill’s "determination to include in the History as much as possible of the traditional accounts on which he had been brought up".

Maya Jasanoff, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is most struck by Clarke’s focus on the financial aspect of Churchill’s writing career, "for a book about books, 'Mr Chuchill’s Profession' has rather more to say about those of the accounting variety than those filled with prose". But Richard Vinen, writing in the Independent, is sharpest on picking up on how the Anglophone world took shape in Churchill’s mind. Although Clarke denies that Churchill was an Anglo-Saxon supremacist, Vinen maintains that "race played a large role in his thinking. Even before the First World War, he talked in terms of 'Russian power, the yellow races, the Teutonic alliance and the English-speaking peoples'". But Vinen’s main problem with Clarke’s study is that it offers "neither a clear synthesis nor an original piece of research". An eye on the market, as well as Clarke’s reliance on reputation, makes the book seem "rather like many of Winston Churchill’s," Vinen concludes.